A controversial state policy designed to ensure virtual school students learning remotely are engaged with their coursework has resulted in hundreds of students being removed from school rosters, a Chalkbeat analysis shows.

Under the state’s “engagement policy,” virtual charter schools are allowed to essentially expel students who don’t complete work or attend classes after a series of warnings, notices — and in some cases, a visit from the county sheriff — ending with a hearing with the students’ parents. Virtual school leaders and Republican lawmakers say the two-year-old policy helps ensure students are positioned to succeed in a remote learning environment without in-person instruction.

But critics say that instead of helping the schools engage remote students, the policy is a way for virtual schools to cherry pick their students and bypass accountability by offloading ones who might be detrimental to their state ratings, test scores, or graduation rates. In recent years, all of the state’s eligible virtual charter schools received D and F grades from the state, and in some cases, are graduating just 2 percent of students.

“Is this a form of skimming, whereby you’re creating a policy that lets you get rid of your lowest-attending students?” said Ethan Hutt, a researcher who studies school attendance and truancy at the University of Maryland. “What troubles me about this policy is it doesn’t seem like it’s geared around engaging the parent to try to figure out, what can we do to try to make sure the child is attending?”

Data requested by Chalkbeat shows, for the first time since the policy was put in place, how it plays out in schools: Last year, Indiana Connections Academy removed 284 students last year for not participating in classes or completing coursework, out of a student population of 4,651. Connection’s much smaller sister school removed 21 students. At Insight School of Indiana, which enrolled 766 students, 160 students were removed. Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, did not respond to public records requests for how many students they withdrew for inactivity. Together they enroll more than 6,000 students.

The 2017 law, which saw wide support from Republicans and the for-profit companies behind Connections and Insight, gives virtual charter schools the freedom to write their own specific engagement policies.

Generally, students are contacted after a few days of being absent, usually at first by email. If they don’t respond and start doing coursework, they are contacted again, with each attempt involving increasingly more aggressive efforts — text messages, phone calls, certified letters — until students are scheduled for a withdrawal hearing. The law says parents must be notified before a student would be taken off a school’s rolls. When students are removed, as in other transfer or dropout situations, schools are not expected to pay back the state.

Although Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy would not disclose the number of students they’ve withdrawn and recorded perfect attendance last year, data released by the state and analyzed by their authorizer, Daleville public schools, shows that they have many students who are not engaged and completing courses. The schools are facing the prospect of having their charters revoked over the issue.

Recently, the schools have started going to fairly extreme lengths to re-engage students by partnering with county sheriff’s departments. The unorthodox approach has deputies check in on students who have been marked as truant.

Noah Robinson, the public information officer for the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Department in Southern Indiana, told Chalkbeat he sees the fledgling program less as law enforcement, and more as community outreach. His office is paid a monthly flat $10 fee per student enrolled in the county to do the checks, working out to about $4,000.

“If we can encourage some kid to get his degree and not have to deal with him later on in life as an inmate, then yeah, we’re on-board with that,” Robinson said.

So far, they have 19 county sheriff’s offices signed up, according to an emailed statement from superintendent Percy Clark. He added that they’re starting to see results as well.

“The improvement of Porter County’s number of truant IVPA students from 60 to 30 in a matter of weeks is encouraging as we watch this program take off,” Clark’s statement said.

At Insight, Lamey said there are several teams of staff who work to get students re-engaged and on-track. They reach out regularly to families and hold conferences before a student would be removed — but it’s not the overall goal, Lamey said.

“Virtual school is not for every student,” said Elizabeth Lamey, head of schools for Insight School of Indiana. ”Through that withdrawal, that allows that student to go back to their neighborhood school or choose another route.”

Melissa Brown, in charge of Indiana Connections Academy, said virtual school’s unique learning environment — which usually cannot be successful, school leaders say, without parental involvement — means virtual schools need tools other schools might not.

Just this year, Brown’s staff had a case where they called a student 36 times and sent 80 emails — with no response.

“We have kids enrolled that we never ever, ever can get ahold of,” Brown said. “There are kids who just enroll and that’s all she wrote, and we never hear from them again.”

Unlike an expulsion, a label that allows other schools to deny students enrollment, being withdrawn under the engagement policy marks them as a transfer, similar to when a student moves. That was done on purpose, Brown said, to ensure students could go on and find a school that’s a better fit.

But even without the stigma of expulsion, the engagement policy is unusual because students are not typically kicked out for extended absences at traditional schools, Hutt said — that’s usually reserved for violence. “I am skeptical of the idea that truancy on its own, as opposed to truancy linked with violence or threats” should be a reason for taking students out of school, he said.

Figuring out how to engage students is a problem every school faces, said Greg Richmond, executive director for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. And in traditional schools, there’s generally not a way to enroll them, receive funding for them, then drop them. It’s also unclear what happens to students after they are withdrawn — some transfer to different schools, but others dropout.

Brown said that Connections tracks students as much as they can, and she said many of their dropouts end up earning high school equivalencies. But the state does not track students withdrawn for lack of engagement, a spokesman for the education department said. In fact, there’s no specific “code” schools must use when a student is removed for engagement rather than, say, being expelled or choosing to homeschool. Those students are marked like any other transfer or dropout.

Lawmakers and virtual school leaders, in defense of the engagement policy, say they get stuck with students who are far behind their peers, pushed out by their previous traditional schools. They have cited anecdotal cases of school districts pushing students to leave for virtual schools, but it’s unclear in state data the extent to which this might be happening.

Richmond said he doesn’t buy that defense.

“The fact that someone else somewhere else is treating kids badly should not be considered license to treat all kids badly everywhere,” he said. “We shouldn’t be trying to replicate the sins of the traditional schools … much less paying for those sins.”

It’s possible that the mandatory orientations currently being considered in the legislature could help curb the need for removing students before it even happens, Richmond said.

Giving schools more control over who can enroll would be a major step for schools that are considered public schools, which typically must enroll any student who comes to them. Recently released state data showing that there are students across all the state’s virtual schools who are funded but never earn any credits — in addition to other problems revealed by Chalkbeat reporting that led to a state review of virtual schools — add some urgency for lawmakers to act this year,

Under the bill lawmakers have in the works students and parents would be required to complete orientations about virtual learning and what supervision should look like before they can enroll.

“Because virtual school is very unique and unlike most people’s prior experience with school, I do think it is important for parents and students to understand what they’re signing up for,” Richmond said. “To me that’s a better solution than allowing kids to enroll … paying the schools for kids that aren’t getting educated, having the kids not learn anything, and then months later dropping out. I’d rather tackle this up front.”